2012 and 1070

“Imagine coming across a flower—the most precious, beautiful flower you have ever seen…You discover this flower, and you really want to have it, to own it as yours. But just as you lean over to pick it up, someone else suddenly swoops by and snatches it from your grasp.”

This parable, delivered by a high school student before a crowd of activists at this year’s May Day rally in Poughkeepsie, NY, was intended to convey a distinct form of oppression. According to the speaker, this oppression occurs when “something is available to you and is within your sight, but you’re prevented from ever achieving or attaining it.”

At the setting of the speech—a rally celebrating the spirit behind the collective struggle of workers and immigrants for dignified working conditions and basic human rights—the student’s words resonated with the crowd because they spoke to many of their problems. For the other students who were in attendance, many felt overwhelmed by the burden of debt from college loans, which can bury their career dreams. The workers who showed up to the rally expressed frustration with the state of the economy and healthcare costs, both of which continue to threaten the welfare of ordinary Americans. The most prominent voices at the rally, though, emerged from those in support of immigrants’ rights.

Various placards at the May Day rally

For many of them, oppression is when a hard-working student is denied access to higher education, or denied access to federal and state financial aid for college, by virtue of having unwittingly entered the country undocumented at a young age. Oppression can be when they are stopped and asked for their papers because of the color of their skin. Oppression is “the criminalization of the American Dream,” a student told me.

The plight of today’s immigrant population in America is quickly being recognized as one of the most important, and most pressing, civil rights issues of our time. From the 1990s to the early 2000s, immigration—specifically from Mexico and other Latin American countries—spiked to record levels, and studies have determined that a majority of those arriving during this period have found success and have integrated into the American mainstream. A 2010 paper published by the Center for American Progress found that the share of foreign-born men earning median incomes has nearly doubled since 1990, from 35 percent to 66 percent in 2008. During that same time immigrants have bought homes at increasing rates, from 9.3 percent to 58 percent.

Despite these promising gains, the immigrant community finds itself in a position of great peril today. Recent legislative developments in states like Arizona, Alabama, Georgia, Florida, and South Carolina have rendered it nigh-impossible to live as an undocumented immigrant, and have even led to the diaspora of immigrants with legal status, in those states. The laws that passed are littered with pernicious measures that make it a crime to work in the state without authorization, while empowering the police to stop and detain any person suspected of being in the country illegally, without regard for warrants.

Of these bills, the one that has garnered the most amount of attention is Arizona’s SB 1070. It was passed in 2010 and set off a cascade of reactionary fear-mongering across the other southern states, and today it finds itself challenged by President Obama’s Justice Department before the Supreme Court. The President has repeatedly criticized SB 1070 for the potential of racial profiling, arguing that no one “should be subject to suspicion simply because of what they look like.” Yet, the Supreme Court has evaded any arguments pertaining to the discriminatory nature of the law, preferring to assess the constitutional allocation of state and federal power.

Students and Workers march for justice

At the May Day rally, people whom I asked about the court’s hearings were disappointed that this aspect of the law was being brushed aside. “It’s the institutionalization of state-supported racism,” one person told me, “you cannot judge the law without acknowledging this.” Another expressed resentment towards the bill’s “attrition through enforcement” mechanism, which reasons that in order to reduce the undocumented population, the government must create egregious living conditions for those immigrants so that living in the United States becomes undesirable. “It’s contrary to everything I’ve known about this country; it’s impulsive and irrational,” the student said.

These arguments, of course, fall on deaf ears in the Supreme Court, but for those attending the rally, these words formed a chorus of pride and passion. Hundreds of miles away from the court’s steps in Washington, D.C., the people who gathered to celebrate May Day in Poughkeepsie remained adamant about improving their future and eliminating oppression. No matter each individual’s reason for showing up to the march, the group in attendance was unified in chant: El pueblo vive, la lucha sigue. “The people live, the struggle continues.”

Deportations: Beyond the Numbers

We hear the numbers a lot: 396,906 immigrants were deported last year. 392,862 the year before that. And almost 390,000 in 2009 as well. Yet seldom is it included in these news reports who, exactly, is being deported, and what circumstances the person is being forced to leave behind.

A poster from a May Day rally in Poughkeepsie, NY

One common assumption is that most of the immigrants who are being deported are felons who steal identities, cheat the government, physically endanger others, or get involved with drugs and other criminal activities. President Obama’s administration has certainly placed a rhetorical emphasis on removing these kinds of people from the country—and indeed, the number of deportations of immigrants convicted of felonies (e.g. murder, child abuse, possession of illegal drugs, etc.) has increased by 70 percent over the last four years. But that still only accounts for about half of all of the people who have been deported during Obama’s tenure.

As for the other half? These immigrants are often family members of U.S. citizens—parents, children, spouses, siblings—who have been unable to obtain legal permanent residency status due to the bureaucratic vortex that constitutes our immigration system.

One of these family members is Felipe Montes. Mr. Montes spent nine years in the United States raising two children with his wife before he was deported in 2010. His wife Marie had been pregnant with a third child when he was forced to return to Mexico, and the loss of his income and support meant that Marie would struggle to raise all of the kids on her own. Two weeks after their third child was born, the local child welfare department took thr children from Marie and put them in foster care. Now Mr. Montes may never see his children again.

The tragic situation of the Montes family is not an anomaly. ColorLines reported in December 2011 that during the first six months of 2011 the Obama administration deported 46,000 parents of U.S. citizen children, and there are now 5,100 children of detained and deported parents trapped in foster care.

A paper published in 2011 in the Journal of Sociology & Social Welfare describes the tremendous hardship that this separation can entail:

The disruption of undocumented families, when parents are separated from their children, results in increased symptoms of mental health problems among children. This disruption is so traumatic that the fear of deportation itself results in emotional stress. Fear of arrests and trauma from the workplace raids themselves have profound impacts on children. After the Iowa raid [a May 2008 federal crackdown which resulted in the arrests of 389 immigrants], half of the school system’s students were absent from school, including 90 percent of Hispanic children, because their parents were arrested or in hiding.

At the time, the May 2008 raid had been the largest-ever crackdown on undocumented workers. Despite the clear damage it inflicted on the families and communities in Iowa, however, the Obama administration has gone egregiously further this year. A six-day operation in April conducted by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) nabbed 3,168 undocumented immigrants—with only about half (1,477) of those with felony convictions on their record. This policy will only continue to cause pain and hardship for families with mixed legal status, and must be reconsidered.

Additional collateral damage can be found in the industries of which these undocumented workers have been a part. To take one example, last summer, Alabama’s legislature followed an insidious legislative trend in the South by passing a bill that would criminalize unauthorized work in the state and empower the police to stop and detain any person suspected of being in the country illegally. The law’s passage immediately led to a mass exodus of workers, both documented and undocumented, from the state, for fear of being harassed by local authorities. Many of the workers who fled had made significant contributions to the state’s agricultural economy. Now, a paper published this January by the University of Alabama estimates that the economic costs of the immigrant diaspora will be around 70,000-140,000 jobs, up to $250 million in state income and sales taxes, and up to $10.8 billion in Alabama GDP—a staggering loss.

It should be clear by now that the federal government’s wanton disregard for these immigrants who are affected by deportations is unconscionable. Our policymakers should look beyond the basic deportation figures, because if they bothered to parse the numbers and examine the consequences, they would find that current policy is severely detrimental not just to families, but to communities, industries, and the economy as well.

 Works Cited:

Androff, David K. et al. 2011. “U.S. Immigration Policy and Immigrant Children’s Well-being: The Impact of Policy Shifts.” Journal of Sociology & Social Welfare. March 2011.

Addy, Samuel. “A Cost-Benefit Analysis of the New Alabama Immigration Law.” Center for Business and Economic Research, The University of Alabama. January 2012.